For the love of sponge! I possess an almost pathological fear of public speaking. I’d rather plunge my face into a hive a bees – who are known to adopt a rabid stinging frenzy at the merest hint of the smell of jam – while wearing a face-mask … made entirely from jam!
So, when I was approached last summer by the steeped in history* Bath Photographic Society asking if I would consider giving a talk during their up and coming season of lectures, why exactly did I say yes? I know why… it was in part down to me going through a phase of accepting every opportunity, while also subconsciously safe in the knowledge that 27th May 2014 was not only forever away, but would most probably never come. Clearly, there was at least one serious flaw in my logic: that of the inexorable march of time.
* Bath Photographic Society shares the same birthday as Kodak Eastman in 1888; a year before the invention of the first flexible photographic roll film!
Essentially, I’m an observer, not a talker. [Although my closer friend’s might doubt that assertion when I’m talking all over them! The fear has always been associated with public speaking. I have inevitably had a couple of brief experiences feeding the pathology; predominantly recalling levels of hyperventilation in danger of sucking the entire audience from the room!] And now I’d committed myself to talk to a roomful of people for a mind-boggling hour and a half! So, how did this curious alignment even occur?
During the previous season of lectures my ex-friend Dave Lewis-Baker gave a talk on the History of Street Photography. “You’ll be fine,” he assured me. That’s … early retired Professor of Politics at Warwick University David Lewis-Baker: the professional lecturer! Since first meeting Dave about 5 years ago he’s been very supportive of my photography; and slipped two of my images into his own talk amongst the historical great and the good. It was in the aftermath he persuaded their secretary, Liz Bugg, to approach me.
Still, at least I had 9 months to prepare, right? Ah. See, there’s another flaw in the logic associated with hoping time stands still: fear induced procrastination. So it was probably less than 9 days before the talk when I finally began to select images and order a brown paper bag** from Amazon; which isn’t necessarily as crazy as it might sound, as I generally respond well to deadlines. But things did get a little hectic in the last couple of days, with the format only decided upon the preceding day – a hastily borrowed laptop [Thanks again, Dave – well, it was all your fault!]; realising the planned use of PowerPoint was completely impractical; writing onto cue cards; mysteriously losing an entire batch of images only hours before; a late morning timed run-through that hinted I might overrun – but with tweaks still to make; a subsequent timed run-through that hinted I wouldn’t overrun so long as I didn’t breathe, waffle and nobody so much as looked at me. It was too late to change anything now. I was halfway up the stairs to shower and make myself beautiful when I suddenly turned on my heels, returned to the slide-show and took out 20% of the images! A few minutes later I sat under the shower and wondered … at this late stage, would faking my own death be seen as an overreaction?
** One of the best concise pieces of advice had appeared on my Instagram feed from a virtual stranger no longer than 24 hours earlier: “Let your work do the heavy lifting. Know what you want to say, but approach the whole ordeal with a relaxed, devil-may-care attitude. Mind the speed of your speech, and pause and breathe often. What’s the worse that could happen?” I did reply “The worst? .. I forget to breathe often enough.” Scott quickly retorted “Alright, so you pass out. Just make sure there’s a great image on the screen… no one will notice.” I pondered the eventuality and thought of a backup plan: maybe, like the bus in the film Speed, if the images drop below a certain rate, the slide-show switches to auto… and the remainder of the speech is written on the souls of my shoes. Simple. What could possibly go wrong?
In the cool, relaxed light of reflection… it was a lifetime pathological fear duly exfoliated. I may well have forgotten to breathe in the first few minutes, but the warmth of the reception carried me through. And the subsequent feedback [anonymously requested], so far, has been truly humbling, as it is equally encouraging … now where did I put the jam?!
Feedback from past day or so:
“…we saw a very personal exploration and a piece of your soul. You were articulate, thoughtful and thought-provoking.”
“It was wonderful to hear the how-where-when-why, for each shot, from the horse’s mouth – it made such a difference to my appreciation of what you have achieved.”
“Overall, the evening was excellent and ranks among the best that we have seen this year.”
“While you are not familiar with public speaking, you clearly prepared very well and this delivered a top-notch presentation.”
“A very enjoyable and informative evening, up there with the best of them.”
“… well-balanced great presentation …considering it was you first talk your passion came through…”
“You were funny, very open and informative.”
“Excellent evening. I think your imagination and creativity are very original.”
“One of the most interesting evenings we have had.”
“A very inspiring and entertaining talk.”
“… your knowledge of and passion for your subjects [made for] an amazing first ever presentation.”
“For me, you should have no qualms at all about your ability to talk publicly. Your knowledge and sincere enthusiasm with excellent images speaks volumes!”
“The photography was brilliantly original, esp. the street photography. I know of no photographer who can spot visual puns like Nigel… [the] street photography is a very personal development of Cartier Bresson’s concentration on people in their own environment, and can be viewed in the same context. He has the very rare ability to photograph people unexpectedly without causing offence.”
I’m indebted to… Dave Lewis-Baker for the initial shove and subsequent support; my great friend Rob Jordan, who filled the car journey to Bath with distracting laughter, helped setup and took a few photos as evidence; my wife, Sue, for agreeing not to come [maybe next time!]; and all at Bath Photographic Society for the opportunity [especially Liz Bugg for my exponentially frazzled emails and texts!].